Sen. Dan Sullivan introduces legislation to make major improvements to the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund

Photo of the Council delegation meeting with Sen. Dan Sullivan.

Legislation includes enhancements supported by Prince William Sound RCAC

Photo of the Council delegation meeting with Sen. Dan Sullivan.
The Council delegation meets with Sen. Dan Sullivan. Left to Right: Joe Lally, Mako Haggerty, Robert Archibald, Amanda Bauer, Sen. Dan Sullivan, Donna Schantz, Rebecca Skinner

Monday, the day after the 30th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Sen. Dan Sullivan introduced in the United States Senate legislation entitled the “Spill Response and Prevention Surety Act.” This bill would reinstitute the financing rate for the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, establish a floor and ceiling for the Fund so as to ensure availability of funding resources to help respond to oil spills in all 50 States, provide for prevention funding grants and make other improvements to the Fund.

A delegation of Board members and staff from the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council is currently in Washington, DC and provided a preliminary response to Sen. Sullivan on this very encouraging development. The trip is an annual visit for meetings on Capitol Hill, with the U.S. Coast Guard, with federal agencies that comprise the Interagency Coordinating Committee on Oil Pollution Research, the State of Alaska, and the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company.

As a citizens’ organization authorized by statute after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Council had previously expressed to Sen. Dan Sullivan, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Rep. Don Young and other members of the House and Senate strong support for congressional authorization for certain important and needed improvements to the Fund. It was therefore very encouraging for Council representatives to see this bill introduced in the Senate. While visiting Sen. Sullivan at the Capitol yesterday, the Council expressed their appreciation for his work on this bill.

Council representatives are hopeful that the bill will be considered soon in the Senate and House, supported strongly across the nation, acted upon and enacted during this session of the 116th Congress. Council representatives in Washington intend to ensure the full membership of the Council, spanning the entire Exxon Valdez oil spill region, will be briefed on the bill once they return to Alaska later this week. The Council will then be able to provide Congress the organization’s views regarding any potential further recommended improvements to the bill as introduced for consideration.

The financing rate expired at the end of December 2018. It is therefore important that action be taken soon to reauthorize the financing rate and to make the other needed improvements to the Fund for the protection of navigable waters in every state, fish and wildlife and their habitats, local, state and regional economies and for the environment.

The Council delegation meeting with congressional leaders in Washington this week included Amanda Bauer, president, representing the City of Valdez; Rebecca Skinner, Board member, representing the Kodiak Island Borough; Robert Archibald, Board member, representing the City of Homer; Mako Haggerty, Board member representing the Kenai Peninsula Borough; Donna Schantz, executive director; and Joe Lally, director of programs.

For more information, contact Brooke Taylor at 907-277-7222.

Download a PDF of this press release:

New buoys will collect data about winds and currents in Port Valdez

Photo of the Valdez Duck Flats.
Photo of VMT Buoy in Valdez harbor
Update June 2019: This new buoy, pictured here in Valdez Harbor before being moved to its monitoring location near the terminal. The buoy is now streaming data, which can be accessed through our weather tracking page

In February, the Council reached an agreement with Alyeska that will improve knowledge about weather conditions in Port Valdez. Alyeska has agreed to allow a buoy to be installed in front of the Valdez Marine Terminal to measure winds and surface currents. A second buoy will collect data from a nearby salt marsh.

Agreement reached on appeal to amendment of spill contingency plan

The agreement is the outcome of an appeal to a 2017 amendment to the oil spill contingency plan for the terminal.

In that 2017 amendment, Alyeska replaced a tool used by responders in deciding whether to protect the salt marsh known as the Valdez Duck Flats, and the Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery in case of a spill from the terminal. The Council, the City of Valdez, the Valdez Fisheries Development Association, and the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation appealed the 2017 change. They were concerned the new tool would not adequately protect these two environmentally sensitive areas.

Read moreNew buoys will collect data about winds and currents in Port Valdez

Drills test new response equipment and personnel

Photo of representatives from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservations and SERVS monitoring as as responders from the fishing vessel fleet deploy boom in Golden Bay, northwest Prince William Sound.

Exercises required for marine transition

A series of drills and exercises, including one large no-notice drill, helped assess the new system in Prince William Sound.

Throughout the past year, Alyeska conducted a series of exercises designed to meet requirements from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and train the crews aboard Edison Chouest Offshore’s new vessels. Some exercises were conducted during windy conditions and others during darkness.

Photo of crews practicing oil spill response at night.
The Council believes safely incorporating realistic challenges into drills and exercises increases safety during a real response. This photo from a July 2018 exercise shows how response crews practice deploying oil spill boom at night.

In June, the department approved major amendments to the oil spill contingency plans for the Valdez Marine Terminal and the tankers that transport oil through Prince William Sound. These amendments stemmed from the change of spill prevention and response contractors to Edison Chouest Offshore, who took over from Crowley Maritime last July. The approval came with conditions, which required specific exercises and training for the new equipment and personnel.

The department required each of the five escort tugs, the four general purpose tugs, and the Ross Chouest utility tug to conduct exercises with oil spill response barges. In addition, the department specified that some of these exercises had to occur in winds of at least 20 knots (23 miles per hour) and in darkness.

Some exercises tested the tugs’ spill prevention capabilities. Each of the five escort tugs stopped a laden tanker traveling at 10 knots (over 11 miles per hour) and at 6 knots (almost 7 miles per hour). All tugs demonstrated their abilities to stop and tow a stricken tanker.

Many of these exercises were completed during the summer prior to July 1, when Edison Chouest officially took over the contract, but some of the darkness and heavier weather events took place after the transition.

Alyeska was given until December 31, 2018 to complete these exercises, however they were completed earlier. All vessels met the department’s standards.

With these new assets approved, the current version of the tanker plan will be in place through February 2022. The terminal’s plan is up for renewal later this year.

Annual fall shippers’ drill

Crowley Alaska Tankers hosted a large-scale table-top exercise in October.

For this annual drill, the role of the “spiller” alternates among the shipping companies that move oil through Prince William Sound. Crowley Alaska Tankers’ new role in the Prince William Sound system means they join the rotation. (Approximately 200?) Two hundred people participated in this drill.

This year, the scenario involved a tanker colliding with an out of control vessel causing an instantaneous release of 140,000 barrels, or almost 6 million gallons, of crude oil into central Prince William Sound. Simulated weather moved the spill towards the village of Tatitlek; a trajectory typically not usually played in these sorts of large exercises.

One of the exercise highlights was the Regional Stakeholders Committee. This committee is an avenue for stakeholders to offer their support, resources, and expertise, as well as to express their concerns, to the response leaders in the event of a spill. Representatives from the City of Valdez, the City of Whittier, and the Council participated during this drill.

No-notice drill included equipment deployments

In November, the department surprised Alyeska with a larger-scale unannounced drill. This was the first unannounced drill in recent memory to be held at night.

The call came at 5:57 p.m. on November 6. The scenario was that the crew of a tug smelled spilled oil while escorting a loaded tanker through the Sound. The department asked Alyeska to deploy two open water task forces, each of which included an oil spill response barge and associated equipment. Five fishing vessels under contract with Alyeska for spill response participated in the drill.

Council staff were on hand for the exercise, and observers were pleased that the drill included several challenges that added realism, including:

  • The drill was planned to last 18 hours to simulate the long hours of a real event.
  • Crews were asked to don protective gear which would be needed in the event of an actual spill. Previous drills had not required as much gear. Council observers noted several issues, including the challenge of communicating while wearing a respirator and that not all personnel wore the protective equipment.
  • A buoy was set adrift for responders to simulate tracking an actual oil slick.

    Photo of responders removing a section of boom.
    Five previously untested “geographic response strategies” were deployed in September.
    Geographic response strategies are oil spill response plans tailored to protect specific environmentally sensitive sites. By selecting and mapping these locations in advance, these strategies can save time during the critical first few hours of oil spill response.
    Deploying equipment at these sites is important to verify that the plans work as intended. In this photo, responders from the fishing vessel fleet remove a section of boom after it was discovered anticipated boom lengths were too long at this site.
Photo of representatives from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservations and SERVS monitoring as as responders from the fishing vessel fleet deploy boom in Golden Bay, northwest Prince William Sound.
Representatives from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservations and SERVS look on as responders from the fishing vessel fleet deploy boom in Golden Bay, northwest Prince William Sound.

More details

There are just a few highlights of the drills and exercises observed by the Council every year. Additional details are available in our annual drill monitoring report, available online: Preparedness Monitoring

How Alaskans redefined oil spill prevention and response

Governor Steve Cowper signs into law a suite of bills developed to enhance Alaska’s oil spill preparedness in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Photo courtesy of David Rogers
Cover of report titled "Alaska's Oil Spill Response Planning Standard - History and Legislative Intent
Download: Alaska’s Oil Spill Response Planning Standard – History and Legislative Intent (PDF 5MB)

Council report documents the history and intent behind Alaska’s standard for spill response planning

Alaska, and Prince William Sound in particular, is known for its world-class oil spill prevention and response system. But it wasn’t always that way. In March of 1989, when the Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled an estimated 11 million gallons of crude oil, responders were ill-prepared.

“Nothing arrived. There was nothing there.”

– Marilyn Heiman
Staff member for the Alaska House Resources Committee,
on the experience of waiting days for equipment to arrive.

Many changes have been made since then. A recent report, funded by the Council, tells the story of how Alaskans came together in the disaster’s aftermath to change the laws governing oil spill response in Alaska. Researchers Tim Robertson and Elise DeCola of Nuka Research interviewed many of those directly involved in creating these standards and compiled their stories. Robertson directed oil spill response operations in Seldovia after the Exxon Valdez spill and was an early member of the Council’s Board of Directors.

Early contingency plans didn’t equal an effective response

The report chronicles problems related to the early spill contingency plans that contributed to the Exxon Valdez disaster. The plan that was in place in 1989 listed equipment needed for a response. However, some of that equipment was buried under 10 feet of snow, a response barge was undergoing maintenance, and there were not enough trained personnel on hand to respond to the spill. Three days after the spill, a winter storm spread the oil farther.

“The problem wasn’t a lack of regulations; it was that the regulations had not compelled an adequate oil spill response system,” according to the report.

“How did we know we’d built the right-sized system? The Cordova fishing fleet wanted ten times as much equipment, and industry wanted to cut it in half.”

– Michael Williams
Former BP attorney

An emergency order from Alaska’s governor planted the seed that grew into today’s robust system

Governor Steve Cowper signs into law a suite of bills developed to enhance Alaska’s oil spill preparedness in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Photo courtesy of David Rogers.

Two weeks after the spill, Alaska Governor Steve Cowper issued an emergency order that noted the failures of the previous plan. The order also defined what he expected to be put in place: a robust new system that could handle an Exxon Valdez-sized spill. The governor gave Alyeska 38 days to set it up and threatened to shut down the terminal if they did not comply.

A team of oil industry experts, attorneys, state employees, and spill response specialists came together with their wide range of experience in oil spill response to solve this challenge.

The report chronicles the challenges and breakthroughs the group encountered while developing the revolutionary new system. They sought advice from the oil shipping industries in Norway and Scotland to develop the system of escort tugs, oil storage barges, boom, skimmers, and trained personnel. This interim system was designed to meet the governor’s order and became the genesis of Alyeska’s current Ship Escort/Response Vessel System.

New regulations based on real events

With the realization that the response to the spill had been inadequate, new regulations were soon underway. Lawmakers based their new rules on this interim plan and the lessons from the Exxon Valdez spill.

House Bill 567, as it was known, contained very specific terms. The authors of the bill wanted a “self-executing” law for the most part. This means the law was written in a way that allowed little room for interpretation.

Many of the specifics required compromise, including the amount of oil the industry had to plan to clean up and how much time they had to be able to pick up that oil.

“At the end of the day, we needed a suite of bills that nobody loved but everybody could live with.”

– Drue Pearce
Former Senator

The resulting requirement was that industry must be able to contain, control, and clean up 300,000 barrels, or 12.6 million gallons, slightly more than the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez, in the first 72 hours after a spill. This included not just having the equipment, but making sure it was ready to go and that people were trained on how to use the equipment.

Download the full report:

More stories are documented in the Council’s report, which describes in detail requirements such as personnel training and equipment maintenance, among others:

Alaska's Oil Spill Response Planning Standard - History And Legislative Intent (5.6 MB)